An Interview with photographer, Loreal Prystaj.
“This place is in a bit of a ‘transition state’ … and quite hot!” was what Loreal wrote to me in an email several hours before our meeting was to take place.
She was emailing me because her phone suddenly broke upon arriving in the the US from London just the afternoon before and our modes of communication suddenly dwindled to just one. The place she spoke of? That’s the apartment she shares with her partner, Olivier, in Brooklyn. He lives there year round and while Loreal has roots planted all over the state of NY, she is currently a student at the Royal College of Art in London. She’s in town for a while to see friends and family upstate and it just so happened to coincide with my trip to the area. Since Loreal is a featured artist in Issue Three of Unvael Journal, we had been chatting a bit when we figured out this delightful piece of information. So, we planned a meet up.
I grew up and lived in the Philadelphia region my entire life - 39 years - until June of 2017 to be exact. I’m familiar with east coast weather, aggressive drivers, car horns, terrible roads, and flat out angry people. But there’s one thing dislike most of all and don’t miss; humidity. I dread humidity. Loathe is definitely a better word to describe my feelings towards it. And while I’m used to it having spent my whole life around it, I’ll never truly deal with it properly and on this particular weekend in NY it was extremely hot and humid. I had spent the previous 3 days driving and photographing events with little access to AC. So on day 4, the last day of my trip, it was definitely starting to affect my mood. Snobby, yes, but truthful. If it’s going to be hot, I prefer the dry heat of Colorado, the place I currently call home.
With no phone access (her) and no way to contact me other than emailing from her laptop it was agreed that we meet at the door to her building at noon… a rendezvous that felt eerily like the 90s when most of us didn’t have cell phones and a few lucky friends owned pagers. We just set a time and met up and hoped everyone made it. It was nostalgic in a sense and for a few moments I remembered what it was like to not have a phone on me at all times… that is until I checked my texts, emails, and map just seconds before getting to her door to make sure I was at the right place. It was beautiful, sentimental thought while it lasted, I guess.
As I walked towards her building I questioned why I chose to wear black jeans and a black shirt when I knew what the weather would be like and where I was headed. At the exact moment I walked up to the glass door of Loreal’s apartment building somewhere in Brooklyn, on a hot street on a hot and humid day, Loreal arrived on the other side peering through the glass at a person she’s never seen before - in person or online. I knew it was her right away, though, because self portraits are a main focus of hers and I was very familiar with her face after following her work for nearly a year - ever since I started the journal. I guess she felt that connection, that vibe, because her face lit up in excitement as she pushed open the door and declared “Michael!” Her skin glistened with sweat, her cheeks were several shades of reds and pinks, and she had a huge smile on her face. We hugged and completed the necessary greeting procedures anyone goes through when meeting someone for the first time and we entered her building excited to talk, learn, and connect.
Her apartment was hot, but you knew that already. My guess, somewhere around 90-95F. A photograph of hers hung on one wall while a large piece of art Olivier and her created hung on another. It was on the 6th floor and it felt like it gathered and stored the heat from the 5 apartments below. Loreal poured us each a glass of water with ice. I’m one of those people that doesn’t enjoy ice (it gets in the way of drinking) but in this situation, I was thankful to have it. We both sat on the couch below the piece of art she created with Olivier and quickly began chatting. It’s easy to talk to Loreal. She makes you feel welcome and looks you in the eye and genuinely cares about what you are saying. There wasn’t a lot of small talk. Besides the obvious, the oppressive heat, I’m sure a few subtle quips of simple chatter happened but we dug deep fairly quickly. I always like when that happens.
Loreal was once homeless. When she first said those words out loud to me during the interview I smiled and said, “oh wow.” Honestly, I thought she meant it more figuratively in a sense that while she didn’t have a physical home; that she stayed with friends or family somewhere living the “couch surfing” life or if she was lucky, crashing in a friends spare room while moving around from house to house.
She wasn’t staying with friends or other family members, though. At times, she was physically living on the street. It took a minute or so of conversation for me to stop her mid sentence and say, “wait, what?” And while it wasn’t a prolonged period of time in her life, it was roughly a year where she bounced around from crashing on a friend’s couch to spending large swaths of time sleeping and living on the street. I was in shock. I guess the suburban white male privileged bubble life I grew up in, and for the most part, still lived, affected my ability to properly digest that kind of information. Here, in front of me, was a kind and personable human that seemingly had a huge heart and was an incredibly talented artist who called the streets of Brooklyn home, literally.
It was during this time she found the first abandoned tub. After stumbling across that first tub, something clicked in her mind. Maybe she had a premonition (something she told me she had before), maybe it was random, or maybe she was destined to be there at that that exact moment in that exact situation. However it came about, something happened and an idea was born.
Loreal came from a decent family, she was intelligent, and had practiced photography for some time. She dabbled in the arts for years, painting & sculpture, and had a camera she carried around with her constantly. So when she saw that first tub - she saw something different than just a photograph of the tub itself, what many photographers would see. She saw a self portrait. She saw herself in that tub so she set out to make it happen. “Bathtubs became my creative outlet. The tub walls transformed into the structure I was looking for, becoming a frame I could create any universe in – it was an escape from reality, where I could become whatever I wanted to be.”
Her “Body in Bathworks” series, as she calls it, gained some attention some time later after posting several of the images online. After months of stumbling across and noting abandoned tubs throughout Brooklyn (she still remembers many of the locations) she had a series of self portrait photographs. “Each photograph is an actual constructed environment that I photograph myself in. Do not mistake each image for self-portraiture, but more so a character unto itself. I have photographed myself in over 100 Bathtubs internationally thus far, and continue to explore these ‘imaginative universes' one tub at a time.”
The “Body in Bathworks” led to a second self portrait series called “Reflecting on Nature” that involved using mirrors with self portrait photography in nature. While the photographs of her in abandoned tubs gained her some attention, it was the images from this series that took her career to the next level and pretty much solidified her as an emerging fine art photographer. “From observing nature’s schedule and landscapes, I placed myself in its environments while nature looked at itself in the mirror.” A variety of blogs, websites, and art outlets shared, showcased, and celebrated “Reflecting in Nature” - and it was then where she started to see copies and replicas of her work. Loads of people saw these images and all of the sudden her photographs were being used as inspiration for others. But while some photographers were inspired by her new series, others just flat out copied it. Herein lies the frustrating phase of being a photographer, or any artist for that matter… copycats.
It was around this time of our discussion in that sweltering apartment that she walked over to the kitchen table, got out her laptop, and I stood up to pull my soaking wet shirt away from my back. It’s also around the time where I noticed the first banana perched on top of a frame hanging on a wall. “Interesting,” I thought. Loreal opened her laptop and navigated to her website and pulled up some of the articles that were written about her series. She scrolled down and halted at an image of her standing in front of a printed and framed photo of hers. She’s wearing a black and red floral sundress she purchased from a thrift store for around a dollar just hours before because she didn’t “have anything nice to wear to the event” and she was still not living in a house. She’s standing there, smiling, seemingly happy while all those people around her - some congratulating her - and none one there has any clue what her situation was truly like.
When Loreal was 5 she was playing at a local playground near her home in Rochester, NY when a child that was also playing there at the same time suddenly disappeared. It turned out that the child was kidnapped and was found dead at an abandoned warehouse nearby where Loreal used to practice riding her bike. While listening to her tell the story you can easily see her question why this happened and also that she knows it could have easily been her that was kidnapped. She was just yards away from the other girl. And while she didn’t see it happen - apparently nobody did - its hard not to question “what if?”
When Loreal was 12 years old she injured from a slip and fall. In a time before excessive helicopter parenting and awareness, many kids were flat out told to “suck it up” when they got hurt. If there wasn’t any massive bleeding or a limb wasn’t hanging off your body, you were “fine.” “Get over it” her parents may have said. 10 days went by before she could no longer ignore the swelling ankle and endure the pain that came along with it. She was finally taken to see a doctor where they determined she had a staff infection and it was spreading rapidly. She underwent surgery with the understanding that in all likelihood she would lose her left leg. But when the doctors performed the surgery they were able to keep her leg and she fortunately healed. Her scars from this incident are easily detectable - mainly due to the coating of sweat that provided a sheen to her leg and ankle which amplified the visibility of the scars.
Remember the brief mention of Loreal having a premonition? At the age of 22 and while living in NYC, Loreal used to pass by a fortune teller getting her shop ready every morning. And every morning, Loreal would think to herself “her routine would be wonderful to photograph.” After seeing this unfold every day on her walk to work in the morning she finally decided to document the process and set out to make it happen. On her way to do this, while walking, she felt a weird sensation rush over her body and she slowed her pace and (this is when she stops for a second and says to me “you may think i’m crazy when I tell you this) she had a vision of being hit by a car. In the next moment she stepped on to the street to walk across and a car bolted past her, coming within a few inches of her body. She immediately felt relief and its easy to figure out what she was thinking. That vision, or premonition, just saved her life. She stood there for a brief second or two relishing in the fact that she was safe, and unharmed, all do to this crazy experience she just had. It was at that moment that another car slammed into her and tossed her body to the ground. So what was she thinking of at this moment? “All I could think about as I lied there was if my camera and lens was ok.”
I wish I had more time to spend with her that day but I had to get to the airport and eat a quick dinner before doing so. Had I known my flight was going to be cancelled that night, I may have stayed longer to hear more about her life. Loreal is a person you meet and you instantly feel happy. Her soul is positive, she’s full of optimism, and her mind vibrant and young. While she is nowhere near an old age (she’s just shy of 30) she retains an extremely youthful quality about her. She’s ever curious, constantly searching for something meaningful. Her desire to learn and create is infectious and it fuels her daily life. She seems to live in the present, something so many of us wish we could do - I certainly am unable to do that. She’s an explorer, a wanderer, and nomadic presence that I’m positive has so much to offer this world, especially in the arts. In talking with Loreal for several hours we laughed a lot even as her 90+ sweltering and humid apartment made us feel like we were going to pass out at times (I’m still not sure why we just didn’t leave it earlier and talk outside). Her place has little artifacts that she has collected from all over the place scattered on shelves… “nature’s hearts” she calls them. Each one resembles a heart… some just barely. The one room has a broken AC unit in it which forced me to ask “why the hell isn’t it getting fixed?” I found a total of 4 bananas scattered throughout the room where we talked… a fact I didn’t notice until we were walking out the door - I originally only noticed 2. The additional 2 were not on frames. One was on top of a lamp, the other on some kind of antler on the wall. Why? Because “bananas ripen slower when they are separated.” I couldn’t help but tell her she could have just moved all 4 just a foot or so apart. But it doesn’t matter. I liked seeing a bananas scattered around the room. In some weird way, I feel it was a perfect metaphor to describe Loreal.
Interview and images are by Michael Ash Smith and is the property of Unvael Journal. Sharing this blog post is encouraged. Taking the interview and images for yourself is illegal.